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The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XII

The latest installment of Ernest Adams' Designer's Notebook series once again takes a close look at major and minor design flaws made by developers -- when it comes to interface, A.I. behavior, or pure game design -- and highlights them so you know what to avoid doing.

[The latest installment of Ernest Adams' Designer's Notebook series once again takes a close look at major and minor design flaws made by developers -- when it comes to interface, A.I. behavior, or pure game design -- and highlights them so you know what to avoid doing.]

Welcome to the 12th installment of Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! I think we're having a positive impact, folks -- many of the games mentioned in this edition are fairly old, so it's just possible that newer games are starting to avoid the worst design mistakes. I'd like to hope that this gripe-fest is helping. However, old or new, we can always learn from the errors of the past, so I'm going to go right on documenting them. As always, thanks to my many contributors, and you're welcome to send more complaints to [email protected].

As usual, I've tried to mix and match between small things that are incredibly annoying (but easy to fix) and larger, harder problems. This year we have eight.

Uninterruptible Text

I read fast, and I don't like to re-read something that I've just read five minutes ago. Waiting for text to... scroll... slowly... by... drives me nuts, especially if it's text I've already seen.

Joshua Gault wrote, "This is most annoying when you save, then there is a long conversation between you and some guy, and he turns out to be the boss.

"This is particularly bad at the end of all of the Mega Man Battle Network games. I don't like breaking my A button from anger because I must retry the boss, which requires me to go through four pages of text."

It's very simple: non-interactive text should be interruptible, just as movies should be.

Oh, and don't put save points before long non-interactive sections, either -- text, cinematics, or empty regions the player has to walk through. But you knew that one, right? I mentioned it last year in Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! XI.

Rapid Non-Stop Text

The flip side of the foregoing is text that goes by too fast. Shairi Turner wrote, "I have a problem with dialogue moving too quickly. We don't all read at the same speed. While I may have found pressing X or clicking to be tedious in the past, I miss it when it's gone." This is a basic accessibility failure. (Most games have terrible accessibility.)

You need two buttons: Advance to Next Page (which should happen instantly, not in a slow scroll or worse yet, a letter-by-letter display -- TeleTypes were old news by 1985, okay?) and Jump to End, which should take the player to the next point at which she has to take action or make a decision.

False or Pointless Alignment Systems

I've always thought that explicit alignment systems, a la Dungeons & Dragons, were kind of pointless anyway; they constrain role-playing and discourage enacting characters with flaws or complex personalities. Is Hamlet good or evil? Well, he killed Polonius, so I guess that makes him evil. Whew. I'm glad we've got that sorted out.

It's even more of a problem in computer RPGs that keep track of what you do, but only in a simplistic way. Luke Bainton wrote,

Generally, you have to decide from the outset whether you're going to be the white knight or the black knave; you will only get benefits from relentlessly pursuing one or the other. On top of this, the contrast between being "good" and "bad" is usually so far divided it's impossible to relate. In BioShock your choices are between being a loving caretaker for the rest of your life or turning into a comic-book supervillain with destroy-the-world intentions. I have no desire to do either!

The concept of neutrality is usually poorly implemented as well. In some games it means you need to balance good acts with evil ones, which gets hard to swallow. Roughing up one pedestrian for a few coins and then helping another across the street doesn't make you neutral, it makes you schizophrenic.

If you want to track the player's behavior and generate consequences for it, by all means do, but the consequences have to be proportionate to the activity. And if you're interested in rewarding moral, or immoral, behavior, it's better to do it via some in-world system than an arbitrary alignment. For example, if players want to be evil, let them join the Crime Guild and work their way up, gaining benefits as they go. They shouldn't be thrown out for the occasional act of virtue, nor should they be thrown out of the Heroes Guild for a little burglary in a good cause.

While we're on the subject of alignments...

Forcing the Player to Violate His or Her Alignment Unnecessarily

The example for this goes back a way, but it's a good one. Benoit Girard chose to play a good Jedi in Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, but...

You could get a powerful Jedi mind control trick allowing you to change an enemy into a neutral NPC permanently. You could use it to neutralize your opponents before killing them (not very Jedi-like), or just neutralize them and continue exploring the current level.

In a Bespin level, you ended up in an arena-like place where dark Jedis would attack you, and from which you could escape only after defeating them. The problem is that the appearance of the dark Jedis was triggered by the slaughter of all the other opponents in the level... something I figured out after more than half an hour trying to find the secret exit I might have missed somewhere in the level, while a bunch of formerly-hostile NPCs were walking around randomly.

So Benoit, being a good Jedi, courteously neutralized all his opponents without killing them, then couldn't find the exit because it didn't exist yet. The only way to get out was to massacre all the harmless neutrals in cold blood, thus triggering the appearance of the dark Jedi, and then kill all of them before the door would open.

And we wonder why some people are concerned about violence in video games. Note that this is what you're supposed to do when you're the good guy!

I already covered Illogical Victory Checks back in Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VIII, and this is certainly an example. (Normally, you don't have to kill people to unlock a door.) But apart from that, it compels the player to violate his alignment, requiring him to do something that the game has told him not to do.

Lying to the player about how he's supposed to play the game is almost never a good idea. (Yes, I know about Shadow of the Colossus, and I'm not convinced.) Worse yet, it fails to recognize lateral thinking. Benoit neutralized his opponents without shedding a drop of blood. That should be rewarded, not ignored.

It's one thing to put the player in a moral dilemma for dramatic effect. But this was no dilemma, it was just bad level design... and a Twinkie Denial Condition.


Poor Defensive Controls in RTS Games

History lesson: When Duke William of Normandy invaded England in 1066, he met King Harold's armies at the Battle of Hastings. Harold's men formed a tightly packed wall of shields that neither William's infantry nor his cavalry could breach. After a few hours of trying and failing, William ordered a feigned retreat. Harold's armies, thinking they had won the day, broke ranks and chased them. With the shield wall down, William's men turned around and destroyed them. This is why, nearly a thousand years later, the motto of the British monarch is still in French.

The same thing happens in StarCraft. Someone named Ilya tells it:

You can either tell your units to hold position or stop. If they stop, and they get attacked, they're going to run after whoever did it, kill them, get attacked again, run after it, etc., until they're in the enemy base. Then they all die.

If they hold position and they get attacked, only one or two of them is going to do anything about it and the rest stand around. And they die.

And there's no hold fire mode. If you're trying to spy on your enemy, you leave your spy alone for a second, and he shoots something automatically, then your enemy will know what happened and will send a detector over and your spy dies.

There are actually two separate issues here: engagement and pursuit. A reconnaissance unit should never initiate engagement until explicitly ordered to.

A unit that has been ordered to stay in one place should never pursue until explicitly ordered to. If you have two engagement policies (fire on sight and fire when fired upon) and two pursuit policies (pursue and don't pursue), the combination yields four types of defensive orders:

 

Fire on sight

Fire when fired upon

Pursue

Engage on Contact

Retaliate

Don't pursue

Deny Passage

Defend Position

Firing only when fired upon enables a unit to defend itself but doesn't let it start fights that you don't want to get into unless you have to. As for spies, the simplest way to handle this is not to give spy units any weapons, or instruct them not to initiate engagement.

Obviously you can complicate things further if you want to. If a unit's range of vision is greater than the range of its weapons, should it move to get in range, or not? Do you want to make that yet another pursuit option? On the other hand, if you're making a fairly simple game, I would restrict the defensive orders to Engage on Contact and Deny Passage.

One other item -- Ilya's complaint about units that just stand around when their fellows are under attack shows that Starcraft fighters haven't bonded well. Implement a three musketeers policy: all for one and one for all. When a given unit in a defensive posture is attacked, it and every unit that received the same orders at the same time (in other words, the whole group that received the order) should respond together.

I realize this isn't trivial to do; you have to keep track of more information. Still, watching one unit twiddle its thumbs while his buddy ten feet away gets massacred is infuriating. We know that's not how soldiers should behave.

Small Objects That Don't Stack

Mats Ohlsson sent a hilarious rant that speaks for itself:

These are some design flaws from MMOs and CRPGs. They are collected from the Regnum Online and Shaiyia free online games, The Witcher, Neverwinter Nights, Dimensity, Guild Wars, and many more.

You are going to do a quest to kill 200 Silvercrest Soldier Chickens, so first you run around, roaming a huge landscape to visit several chicken lairs, where you will find Ranhar The Super Strong Chicken and Average Joe Chickens but no quest chickens. When you have been running for two hours or two days you ask yet another time "Where are the chickens?" and you get an answer that you can teleport into that area if you find the portal behind the church.

So at last you are at the correct place and start to slay chickens, and when you have been killing chickens for 2 hours you find out that only one of them is a Silvercrest Soldier Chicken. The rest of them are Silvercrest Warrior Chickens that you don't want for your quest. The NPC who gave you the quest was really picky about the ingredients for his soup. You finally get 200 chickens.

You start to collect loot, and you get 100 chicken feathers that fill every slot in the inventory. They are useless, and you can't stack them, but still worth 1 gold each. So you can't get the really nice +3 Rainbow Armor that one of the chickens was carrying because you get a "inventory full" message box all over the screen before you can get rid of a few feathers.

While you're fiddling with this, you don't notice that chickens spawn all around you and when they do, you go from idle to battle mode. This closes the inventory and you can't open it again until all the new chickens are dead. You see your new armor slowly disappear while you get all sweaty fighting a bunch of chickens.

So you teleport out to sell all your new feathers. You go to the market in the nearest town, and the NPC says: "No, this is the pig skin market, we don't deal with chicken feathers here. The chicken market is on the other side of the map." So you go to the player market, a huge auction database where you spend the next hour filling in forms for each and every one of your feathers because they don't stack.

Of course chicken feathers should stack! Anything small should stack. Kobold daggers. Wolf claws. Athelas cough drops. Locks of naiad hair. But not Rainbow Armor or Greater Voulges of Impressive Whooshy Noises.


No Loading Progress Bar/Meaningless Loading Progress Bar

This is another one of those Twinkie Denial Conditions that's perfectly trivial to do right, so why do so many games do it wrong? From a correspondent named Will:

You get to an area that, unbeknownst to you, is a level boundary, and the game pauses with the legend: "LOADING." No progress bar, not even an animation to tell you that the game is still doing something, and therefore, hasn't frozen. The Half-Life series, as much as I love it otherwise, has this problem throughout and it irritates me no end -- especially since one of the other hallmarks of the series is strange bugginess and intermittent lockups.

Another variant that messes up in the opposite direction is the meaningless progress bar. A game goes to a loading screen, and shows you a progress bar that fills fairly rapidly. If you're like me, you're thinking "Yay, short loading screen!" Then, the progress bar resets and starts filling again... and again... and again... and again.

Internet Explorer serves as another good example of the meaningless progress bar. Giant Internet Explorer's little circle goes 'round and 'round, telling me nothing. Yet the tiny, free xScope browser for my Android phone includes a progress bar that shows me how much of the page has loaded. It's invaluable.

Both of these errors are bad, but the lack of any loading bar is the worse of the two because you can't tell if the machine is frozen or not. Put in a progress bar that fills up, once, until the load process is complete. It doesn't have to be perfect; if you load 2 files and one of them is 10KB and one is 10MB, but you allocate half the bar to the first one and half the bar to the second, that's tolerable. We don't really care as long as we can see movement.

Unreadable Subtitles

Back on the subject of text again, Shairi Turner writes, "I can't stand when the subtitles are unreadable. I've run into games where the subtitles are too small or the colors fade into the background. Sometimes it's just a good idea to have a text box at the bottom of the screen."

Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! VII already talked about games that lack subtitles and unworkable interface elements such as green crosshairs that disappear into the background when using green night-vision goggles.

This is a variant of the same problem. Subtitles need to have high enough contrast with the background -- whatever it may be -- to be readable at all times. Television does this with white subtitles, counting on the bottom area of a shot to be darker than the center (as it usually is).

In the past I've suggested using multicolored subtitles to identify individual speakers, which we need because unlike TV, in many of our games you can't see the characters' lips move. To make sure these don't ever blend in to the background, surround each letter with a black line and use dramatic colors like yellow or magenta. The Monkey Island games did this perfectly.

As for subtitles that are too small, this is a total violation of the rules about accessibility. Bad game designer! No twinkie! Unless the text is built into the artwork (bad for localization), it should be user-scalable -- especially subtitles, which float on top of the image and don't have to fit into a menu.

Conclusion

I'm not hearing many complaints about social media and casual games. Being simple, multiplayer, and often storyless, social media games may not have the problems with AI or conceptual non sequiturs that we so often see in role-playing and strategy games. Or it may be that my readership just doesn't play them enough to get mad about them. Anyway, if you've got a gripe -- about any kind of video game -- let me know at [email protected]. See you next year!

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